Early in June, on a sweltering hot day, I met an old friend in Chicago’s southwest neighborhood of North Lawndale. In this neighborhood, once a hub for Jewish inhabitants many years ago, stands the Theodor Herzl School of Excellence, a most unlikely place to find the name of one of the visionaries of Zionism. But there is a story attached to the name of this school, a story that is both inspirational and universal.
In 1915, the school was built in what was a predominantly Jewish neighborhood. While Herzl had never visited Chicago (or America for that matter), this was the first – and until today the only – public school to bear his name. Shortly after his death, and more than 30 years before the creation of the modern State of Israel, the community wanted to remember his vision and honor his dreams.
Today, the school’s population is composed mostly of African-American and Hispanic students, who wear a uniform with Herzl’s name on it. It is also worth mentioning that the school’s football team, the Herzl Bears, was undefeated this past season. What is striking about the school, its teachers, staff and principal Tamara Davis, is the commitment to excellence and encouragement the students are given to follow their dreams – a message that Herzl promoted all over Europe more than a century earlier.
Theodor Herzl's dream
Herzl’s dream was about the creation of a Jewish state, one he never lived to see come to fruition, but his message goes beyond the Jewish community and suggests that anything is possible if you have dreams and then pursue them. That is the message upon which the Herzl school is based, and that is what I saw in the eyes of the students, many of whom come from a challenging environment.
Together we listened to David Matlow – the world’s largest collector of Herzl memorabilia, community activist and my friend – as he taught the students about the man who is the school’s namesake.
In January 1966, another dreamer, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., moved his family into a small apartment in Lawndale, just a few blocks from the Herzl School of Excellence. The legacy of both Dr. King and Herzl proves that great things can come from following your dreams.
Whether by coincidence or by design, these two icons can be tied to the neighborhood of Lawndale. I was, and remain, inspired by the teachers, staff and students of the Herzl School of Excellence and take great comfort in the fact that more than 100 years after his death, Herzl’s message remains universal and relevant.
Time will tell if the next great leaders, thinkers, artists, athletes and educators come from the Herzl School of Excellence, but of one thing I am sure...”if they will it, it is not a dream.”
Go Herzl Bears, Go!
The writer is a senior educational consultant at The iCenter for Israel Education and has been working in the field of experiential education for the past 25 years.